Scientific discovery is a tricky beast. It seems to me that most of the really major innovations came about through a certain amount of tinkering, rather than having a specific goal. As Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, "A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind." Which is why reductions in federal R&D spending are so worrying.
Engineering Happy Accidents
In the San Jose Mercury News article "Innovation at risk with less funding", Stanford University researchers lament the downturn in federal research funding not just because potentially important research projects get axed, but because of the knock-on effect lack of R&D money has on junior scientists. Robert Byer, former dean of research at Stanford, is quoted as saying "It is impacting the education of our students. The long-impact is that we will not have the educated workforce required for the future. [...] We're eating our 'seed corn.' Research is the training ground for future scientists and engineers."
Not only that, but if all your research has to result in some advantageous commodity or product, what are the chances that you'll stumble on something truly novel? The great R&D powerhouses of Bell Labs and Xerox PARC poured a lot of money into grouping tons of very smart people together, mixing them up, and seeing what would result. It paid off. Their discoveries laid the ground work for modern solid-state electronics, computing, and communications.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has published historical data on federal R&D funding and I can't say it makes fun reading. Shifting to near-term, more specific research goals is fine and dandy, but not if it cannibalizes long-term research projects, which is what the U.S. has been doing of late. Partnerships between academia and industry are mutually beneficial, but if you want to try something that's never been done before, how likely are you to find an industrial backer?
As cited in the AAAS's commentary, other countries are pouring more and more money into research even while our federal research funding shrinks. In a knowledge-based economy, whoever has the most bright new ideas wins. The U.S. contains a lot of very innovative people, but if they don't have tools and facilities to test out and develop those ideas, that doesn't help us much.
For those of you who rely on research funding, how's the situation in the trenches? What would you like to see happen?
I'll close with one of my favorite Isaac Asimov quotes: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny ...'"